‘On Friday, as part of a speech urging the UK to leave the European Union, Dr Liam Fox MP said that the UK was “one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history.”’ (From the Guardian, 5 March.) Which of course provoked a lot of Twitter and BTL comment. And was a stupid thing to say.
The reason for that, however, is not that the UK has been as ‘bad’ as other European countries in the 20th century – as bad as Nazi Germany, for example – but that she could have been, in other circumstances. Just how bad is evidenced by how atrociously she did behave in certain late colonial situations: the Kenyan, Malayan and Cyprus ‘emergencies’ being the obvious ones. (See my old LRB piece on this: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n05/bernard-porter/how-did-they-get-away-with-it.) And that’s without claiming that ‘British imperialism’ as a whole was comparable to the Nazi Holocaust, as some post-colonialists do. (See my British Imperial.) Any of us could list other wicked deeds that Britons and their governments have perpetrated during the last century; as well as good things done by other European nations. (Germany’s modern way of coping with her past is one of those that impresses me.) But that’s not really germane.
The point is that any group of human beings is capable of horrors and atrocities, under certain conditions. No nation is characteristically beneficent, or maleficent. We could quite easily have gone for a form of Fascism in the 1930s, if our circumstances had been just slightly different. By the same token, Germany could have avoided it, with more luck. On the ‘good’ side, we (or rather, our forebears) might not have fought as bravely as we undoubtedly did against the Nazi menace if we had not been effectively forced to. Sweden – a nation of goodies, on the whole – didn’t, after all.
I assume that Liam Fox thinks that the ‘moral exceptionalism’ he attributes to Britain is an argument for our leaving the EU. We’ll probably hear a lot of this sort of thing over the next few months, in the debate over ‘Brexit’: i.e. ‘history’ being appealed to on one side or the other of the argument. But Britain’s fortunes either within or outside the EU won’t be determined by this. Any national characteristics we might infer from our past history could easily be reversed or redirected by the new circumstances of the day. As they are being already, of course, in the areas of ‘asylum’ and ‘surveillance’, where Britain has in just the last few years broken with what used to be two of her proudest national traditions, completely. So let’s leave history aside, for the moment; or at least, treat it gingerly. (And I say this as a historian.) It’s far too easily prostituted for political ends. And can distract us from the realities of our time.